history of CSA

A History of Child Sex Abuse

Dr. Rob Hale

A major source on this subject  is "The History of Childhood" by Lloyd deMause. This article quotes from that work.


DeMause starts the account with the statement "This history of sex in childhood presents even more difficulty than usual in getting the facts .... Even so, there is evidence enough in the sources available to us to indicate that the sexual abuse of children was far more common in the past than today, and that the severe punishment of children for their sexual desires in the last two hundred years was the product of a late psychogenic age in which the adult used the child to restrain rather than act out his own sexual fantasies."

The question arises  - is a society where there is much reporting of paedophilia a sick society, or one which can recognise its own sickness?

 DeMause describes the life of children in Greece and Rome, stating "Growing up in Greece and Rome often included being used sexually by old men. Abuse was less frequent among aristocratic boys in Rome, but sexual use of children was everywhere evident in some form. Boy brothels flourished in every city, and one could even contract for the use of rent-a-boy service in Athens. . .. Even where homosexuality with free boys was discouraged by law, men kept slave boys to abuse so that even free-born children saw their fathers sleeping with boys.... Plato's idea was that children should be held in common. However Aristotle's objection was that when men had sex with boys, they wouldn't know if they were their own sons, which Aristotle describes as most unseemly."

Sexual abuse by pedagogues and teachers of smaller children may have been common through antiquity, although laws were passed to try to limit sexual attacks on children by adults: "Consider the case of the teachers. ... It is plain that the lawgiver distrusts them.... He forbids the teacher to open the schoolroom or the gymnastics' trainer the wrestling school before sunrise and he commands them close the doors before sunset; for he is exceeding suspicious of their being alone with a boy or in the dark with him".

"It must be remembered that widespread sexual abuse of children can only occur with at least the unconscious complicity of the child's parents."

It would seem that the responsibility was placed with the father. He quotes Plutarch: "Whether we should permit the suitors of-our boys to associate with them and pass their time with them, or whether the opposite policy of excluding them and shooing them away from intimacy with our boys is correct. . .''.

However he declares "Men that have proven their worth should be permitted to caress any fair lad they please. Lovers who lust only for physical beauty, then, it is right to drive away, but free access should be granted to lovers of the soul."

However the abuse of very young children was frowned upon in Rome. "Suetonius condemned Tiberius because he taught children of the most tender years whom he called his "little fihes'' to play between his legs when he was in the bath. Those which had not yet been weaned but were strong and hearty he set at fellatio.'''

The favourite sexual use of children however was not fellatio but anal intercourse. Intercourse with castrated children was open spoken of as being especially arousing. Castrated boys were favourite voluptates in Imperial Rome, and infants were castrated in the cradle to be used in brothels by men who liked buggering young castrated boys.

Eventually this practice became prohibited by law, but effectively continued.

Christianity introduced a new concept - childhood innocence

"A child has not tasted sensual pleasures and has no conception of the impulses of manhood." In the Middle Ages children are portrayed as asexual beings and little reference is made to them being abused. However, servants are usually blamed. "Even a washerwoman could work wickedness. Servants often show you tricks in the presence of children and corrupt the chief part of infants.'''

That some change in the use of children was going on in the Renaissance can be seen not only in the rising number of moralists who warned against it, but also in the art of the time. Nonetheless, there are clear evidences of overt sexual abuse of children at the highest level. The fullest account is of the childhood of Louis XIII of France when he was the Dauphin. The accounts provided are of a totally sexualized childhood with an obsession in the child's genitals shown by both parents and courtesans.

The campaign against the sexual use of children continued through the seventeenth century. It took an entirely new twist: punishing the little boy or girl for touching its own genitals. This reached its height in the nineteenth century. The sexual use of children after the eighteenth century was far more widespread among servants and other adults and adolescents than among parents.

Freud's decision in 1897 to consider most reports by patients of early sexual seductions as fantasy has been said to have put back the recognition of child abuse by sixty years. It was only in the nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies that the problem was again recognised as being based in reality.

This précis of DeMause's work was written in l 974 and no doubt current psycho- historians would add considerably.

Why do child sex offenders arouse such strong reactions in us? A study of the literature reveals some interesting papers from sociologists, psychologists and criminologists. Quite a lot of the discussion is around justice and social attitudes to it in general. There is also literature on scapegoatism and reactions to mass murder, as well as violence in general. Of direct relevance to sexual abuse is the "Child at Risk'' by Aneke Meyer, published in 2007 by Manchester University Press. Her concern is to understand what she describes as the "moral panic'' and the role of the media in instigating and sustaining moral panics. She asserts that the media systematically manufacture fear and create a folk devil, an entirely negative figure. A view also asserted by McCartan (Med.Sci.Law 2004) whose study confirmed that the public is in fact quite well informed about paedophilia, its recurrence rates, practices and the influence of the media.

Also relevant is "Disowning our Shadow: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Understanding Punitive Public Attitudes'' by Maruna, Matravers and King (Deviant Behaviour 2004). In their introduction they comment that "Numerous observers have suggested that public punitivness is more a symptom of free-floating anxieties and insecurities, resulting from social change than a rational response to crime'problems. "We argue that these public concerns might be better understood by drawing on the insights of psychoanalytic theory".

The paper proposes that punitiveness may be based on:

- a sense of inferiority or shame at our own insignificance

- guilt over our own role in the creation of the crime -

sublimated jealousy and admiration for the criminal exploits

- sadistic impulses to humiliate others

- guilt regarding our own sexual desires

Using psychoanalytic theory,  they then address the topics of inferiority and shame, scapegoatism and guilt, envy and admiration, sadism, sex, guilt and ambivalence.

The problem is largely conceived in terms of violence, but towards the end there is the helpful paragraph:

"However, the instantiation of the sexual modernity's most suitable enemy involves quite a considerable degree of denial - in particular, of empirical evidence about sex offenders and offending. What we know about sex offenders suggests that rather than being a discrete offender group, they bear significant resemblance to other offenders, and indeed the male public at large (Grubin 1998). A significant amount of empirical evidence testifies to the shared guilt that lies beneath punitive responses to sex offenders. Surveys note that sexual interest in children exists in non-convicted populations such as male university students as well as among paedophiles (Abel et al. 1987; Briere and Runtz 1989). Estimates of sexual assault, rape by previously-known assailants, and rape within the context of war identify sexual violence as a prevalent rather than an aberrant behavior (see Simon 2003)."

"Of course the ultimate denial relates to ambivalence towards the sexuality of our own children. For Freud, of course, the prohibition of incest is oho of a number of repressive restrictions placed on men and women by civilization. However, in late modern civilization, child sexual abuse is a perennial moral concern, and ambiguous feelings (fuelled, perhaps, by eroticization of children in art and the popular media) are projected at a safe distance onto "stranger" offenders and paedophiles. Again this involves the denial of empirical evidence that indicates that some 80% of child sexual abuse is carried out by offenders known to their victims (Grubin 1998)."

Another interesting paper from these authors compares punitive attitudes to crime with personal characteristics, with some very interesting transcripts of verbatim interviews.However this is almost exclusively concerned with acquisitive and violent crime.

A final paper of relevance is "Vigilance and Vigilantes: Thinking Psychoanalytically about Anti-paedophile Action'' by Jessica Evans (Theoretical Criminology 2003). Although ostensibly about vigilantism, this paper goes on to examine the conscious and less conscious motivation of the vigilantes. Three excerpts give a flavour of the paper:

Rapson's own view (in Silverman and Wilson, 2002: 133 and endorsed by them) about the causes of-the protests was that, in part:

"People were targeting paedophiles to distract attention from the sex abuse that goes on within families here. It was a way of assuaging their own guilt. One woman who joined the mob has a son who had been arrested for sexual assault. But she said: 'Oh  that's different, he's not guilty - and he's not a paedophile."'

Silverman and Wilson's observations brings us closer to the argument that l want now to pursue ( although the latter's formulation suggests the workings of a conscious conspiracy, a view that my account inevitably complicates). My argument follows from the observation that in the minds of many of the protesters under consideration, the distinction between abuser and victim, perpetrator and innocent bystander was fairly permeable and therefore unconsciously blurred. This can be demonstrated by paying attention to what, as we will see, were the likely multiple identifications made by key protesters, given their history as sexually abused women, evidence for which is in part provided by the generally confused and endlessly contested interpretations of the 'truth' of the events. In particular, 1 draw attention to the general equivocation among the protesters  concerning what was to be counted as 'reliable knowledge'. What is of particular interest from a psychoanalytic viewpoint is the deep-seated ambivalence of the protesters towards the idea that truthful information should be a prerequisite for action.



While the overt threat as the women perceived and expressed it came from unknown men, in the specific case of Katrina Kessell and some of the other women interviewed (see Silverman and Wilson, 2002 129) the focus on the image of unknown men was likely to be and on the disavowal of the existence of real men they had known who had abused and asserted power over them. It was more bearable to locate an external object as the bearer of bad internal objects than to face the conflict that occurs when one has an attachment  to the  person that shames and humiliates. This involved a displacement through the mechanism of projection. Kessell did know she had been abused by someone close to her and had not consciously forgotten this; in fact she draws attention to it in the many interviews she give to the press (see Gillan  200; Ferguson, 2001: 2). But, as is the nature of disavowal, in the split between belief and knowledge where the former predominates, tie real danger is perceived as external nonetheless.

However, she would later tell Silverman and Wilson that the list had  been drawn up from 'word of mouth and facts gleaned from the Internet' (2002: 136). We call surmise then, that the 'list' was for Kessell and her fellow protesters an object in fantasy - functioning in a way that echoes the expectations placed on the offenders register by the Government. Like a talisman, it would arm her with good, powerful knowledge that would enhance her capacity to expel the paedophile  persecutor.

How then can we understand what is an almost universal attitude to paedophilic acts? I would venture the view that in our dreams we all steal, deceive, lie, kill, are sadistic and are sexually perverse. But in real life we do not act on these fantasies and they are not the central part of our organisation. By its very nature tile paedophilic act transgresses boundaries, there is a collapse in tie differentiation between childhood sexuality and adult sexuality. As a member of a psychotherapy group I ran put it:

 "We paedophiles are called sex abusers but we are not -  we abuse and destroy a child's right to their own sexuality".

When lecturing on paedophilia I have been impressed by the universal reaction of disgust followed by revenge. This reaction of disgust is I would propose visceral, sub-served by its own neurological circuitry and in essence instinctual.


Our reaction has a profound effect on the abuser, vigilantism increases social isolation and the propensoity to act - Willis, Levenson and Ward catalogue the evidence. ( J Fam Viol2010)  

- Dr. Rob Hale


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